By the time you read this, the Oscar nominations will have been announced. Probably no category is more questioned over its selection process than Best International Feature Film, which until recently was called the Best Foreign Language Film Award. It’s an odd duck because the movies (unlike in other categories) do not need to have had a US theatrical release; are required to be primarily in some/any language other than English (which ends up excluding most films from, say, the UK, Australia, and Canada); and are placed in contention by their actual country of origin.
This last rule is perhaps the most problematic. Not just because it can end up shutting out multinational co-productions (which are a frequent necessity in the world of film financing), but because choosing the one “best” film produced in any nation during a year often becomes highly politicized. There are frequent accusations of biases within local industries, and/or in the government that sometimes largely controls that industry. In cases where the government uses at least some film production as a vehicle for variably subtle propaganda, an Oscar submission can be as irrelevant to artistic value, and as transparently dogmatic, as a representative’s posturing speech at the UN.
This will be Oscar’s 93rd year, and coincidentally it will have seen a whopping 93 films from as many countries submitted for the award. Two among them happen to be getting released almost simultaneously in the US. In representing nations still in bitter recovery from the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia three decades ago, they sharply illustrate various types of controversies and conflicts that this prize can exacerbate—both in terms of onscreen content and offscreen argument.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is officially billed as being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, though it required the combined efforts of 12 production companies from nine nations to get produced. This latest feature from Jasmila Zbanic (who for a formative period worked abroad with fabled US activist performance troupe Bread & Puppet Theater) dramatizes the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995, late in the Bosnian War. With the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska having gained control of the small mountain town, panicked residents and refugees fleeing lethal “ethnic cleansing” gathered at a UN compound, with an over-capacity 5,000 or more inside, while many thousands more clamored for entry outside the gates. Overwhelmed peacekeeping forces could offer little protection or reassurance, as meanwhile tense negotiations with Serb General Ratko Mladic forced one compromise after another in return for false promises.
Of all the failures of international intervention during this Balkans conflict, Srebrenica was particularly appalling: Under the nose of hapless, hands-tied UN personnel, over 8000 primarily Bosnian Muslim men and boys were separated from the others, then summarily executed. (Some of their bodies still haven’t been found, a quarter-century later.) Quite horrifying enough without explicitly showing that violence, Quo Vadis, Aida? doesn’t even include the instances of suicide, rape, infanticide et al. which also occurred during the events dramatized.
It’s a large-scale, almost real-time depiction that Zbanic keeps in focus by concentrating on Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic). She’s a UN translator swept up in the fruitless negotiations, while also trying to use that scrap of diplomatic clout to keep safe her husband (Izudin Bajrovic) and sons (Boris Ler, Dino Bajrovic), who at first are stuck with the angry and terrified mob outside the compound. She does manages to get them inside, but the options keep shrinking as hoped-for overall solutions vanish. Quo Vadis and its lead actress both do an extraordinary job of sustaining a terrible, escalating urgency. An epilogue raises the film even higher, from a first-rate docudrama to a lasting work of art with universal profundity.
Zbanic’s fifth narrative feature duly made it to Oscar’s International Feature shortlist of fifteen (and may or may not be one of the final five when you read this), among which I’ve seen about half. None are more deserving of the prize. With all due respect to the Best Actress nominees, Duricic’s devastated and devastating turn kinda makes every other screen performance you’ve seen of late look a tad puny by comparison. Quo Vadis, Aida? is currently playing the Embarcadero Center Cinema; it also becomes available On Demand Tue/16.
Also playing the Embarcadero (which re-opened last Friday) is Serbia’s Oscar submission, though Dara of Jasenovac did not advance among Academy voters from the longlist of 93, and thus is no longer in contention for that award. In the words of director Predrag Antonijevic, it is a “composite truth” mixing survivor testimonies and historical records with fictive elements—not unlike Quo Vadis, Aida?, with whom it shares a few eerie similarities. But this depiction of Croatian concentration-camp horrors during WW2 has been a magnet for controversy, on both artistic and political grounds.
The political issue is basically this: Though atrocities were not limited to one side, Serbia certainly has a lot to answer for in the “Yugoslav Wars” of the 1990s. In some quarters Dara has been read as score-settling propaganda, using “Holocaust porn” to erase that more-recent history by painting Croats as cartoonish, inhuman monsters. No one denies that Croatia’s then-fascist government collaborated with Nazis (whose defeat in 1945 ended the regime), and practiced ethnic/religious persecution that culminated in the deaths of probably one-third of a million ethnic Serbs. Jews, Roma and political dissidents were also exterminated. Catholic Church officials were complicit in some of this. The problem is that Dara’s often crude depictions of saintly Serb victims (mostly children here) and leeringly sadistic villains (both Croat camp staff and glint-eyed nuns) smacks of the kind of agenda-driven emotional manipulation frequently used to promote xenophobia and nationalism.
The artistic problems are related. In something like Schindler’s List, concentration camp atrocities had great force because they were held in reserve. Here, there’s the faulty notion that the more graphic and frequent the depiction of brutality is, the greater its impact will be. Instead, that tactic only results in the viewer growing numbed, and feeling that the subject is being exploited for cheap shocks. When prisoners here are forced to play a lethal game of “musical chairs,” as intercut with an incestuous fascist woman reaching sexual-congress climax while watching throats get slashed, we stray dangerously into the terrain of such 1970s Nazispoitation cheesefests as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. (Though Croats are the “Nazis” here—actual Nazis barely figure, and when they do, appear not-so-bad as the local psychos in uniform.) Meanwhile, the pathos laid thick elsewhere has a contrived, pandering air that may recall the dread specter of Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful.
Dara (Biljana Cekic) is a 10-year-old girl already separated from her father (Vuk Kostic, whom we see enduring forced labor elsewhere), traveling with her mother and two brothers to a prison camp. The old and infirm are executed even before arrival. The film’s 130 minutes are basically one long process of further elimination, as every couple scenes Dara has yet another protector or friend violently stripped from her. With grim predictability, she always seems to be a mute, hidden witness to each fresh horror, which is often accented by CGI blood-spurts.
Every characterization is one-note, Natasa Drakulic’s script providing no depth or arc, but rather a dirge of showy, grisly setpieces. The film runs a coarse tonal gamut between extremes that’s only flattened further by the sunlight-streaming-through-clouds-style “beautiful” cinematography, plus a syrupy musical score. We also get incongruous, rather cheesy recurrent sequences in a Lovely Bones-type mode of sentimental fantasy, as newly dead figures are seen boarding another train cattle car amidst blinding whiteness—this time, presumably bound for Heaven.
There’s something very discomfiting about disliking or even resisting a film like this. After all, it does bring attention to horrific historical wrongs that remain under-acknowledged amongst all the human tragedies of WW2. But whether its hidden agenda is latterday nationalism or not, Dara of Jasenovac feels over-contrived for effect and emotionally fraudulent; you’re always aware of it lunging at the heartstrings, instead of earning our honest tears. Even a Holocaust movie can be guilty of bad taste. However well-intentioned this one is or isn’t, its hamfistedness ultimately does the subject a disservice, creating exactly the kind of transparent “awards-bait” cinema that doesn’t win awards—except, perhaps, from the government that likely played a central role in its making.